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It may be best known for its Italian traditions that helped rename 18th Avenue to Cristoforo Colombo Boulevard, but Bensonhurst’s history started much as other neighborhoods in the area, as farmland in a small section of the town of New Utrecht.

Developer James Lynch attracted middle-class families and wealthy weekend visitors to the area after building his gated community, Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea. The resort was a 350-acre suburb from 20th Avenue on the west to 23rd Avenue on the east and 78th Street on the north to Gravesend Bay on the south.

The community retained a suburban feel until around 1915 when the Fourth Avenue subway line came in, bringing new residents and the construction of walk-up apartment buildings of four to six stories.

Italian-American and Jewish residents from Manhattan’s Lower East Side discovered Bensonhurst at this time, moving in before thousands of immigrants from southern Italy joined them in the 1950s.

The Italians would soon build businesses and bring family members from Italy, making Bensonhurst nearly 80 percent Italian by 1980.

  • Campanella’s driveway is filled with characters the likes of Batman, Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Frankenstein and the Statue of Liberty.
  • 18th Avenue has been co-named Cristoforo Colombo Boulevard since 1987 for the neighborhood's large Italian presence. The busy street is now lined with Chinese businesses outnumbering the Italian ones.
  • A woman separates grapes outside a Chinese market on Bay Parkway.
  • The landmarked New Utrecht Reformed Church is the fourth oldest Reformed Church in Brooklyn, serving as a house of faith since 1677.
  • Catering to the growing Chinese population, the market's pricing is labeled in two languages.
  • Villabate Alba bakery has been a mainstay in the community. Run by the Alaimo family for over 40 years, the shop is named after the owners’ hometown of Villabate, Sicily.
  • Italian words erupt from a table in Seth Low Square where local residents play Dominoes.
  • Sharing Seth Low Square with Italian Dominoes players, a group of Asian residents sit across the way playing cards and Chinese Chess.
  • Open since 1953, Lenny's Pizza was made famous by the film Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta’s character in the film, Tony Manero, ordered two slices from the window and ate them together in a "double-decker" fashion.
  • Superman breaks through the front of Steve Campanella's famous home on 85th Street. The retired Marine and collector has the house decked out in figurines and life-sized fiberglass figures.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Bensonhurst Got Its Name

Cornelis van Werkhoven, who worked for the Dutch West India Company, acquired a huge amount of land from the Nyack Indians in 1652, trading for it with six shirts, two pairs of shoes, six pairs of socks, six hatchets, six knives, scissors and combs. The Dutch called the area Yellow Hook, for the color of the clay found there. 

Five years later, New Utrecht became one of the original towns of Brooklyn and was named for van Werkhoven’s native home of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Originally, New Utrecht stretched from the southern tip of Green-Wood Cemetery down to Gravesend Bay and included today’s Bensonhurst, part of Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights and Borough Park.

Bensonhurst gets its name from Arthur W. Benson, the former president of Brooklyn Gas, and one of the original investors in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. He began buying up farmland in the area in 1835. Then the Benson family later divided up their property and sold parcels to developer James Lynch, on the condition that the land bear the family name. Lynch created a gated community called “Bensonhurst by the Sea.”

New Utrecht was annexed to City of Brooklyn in1894. When the 4th Avenue subway line was extended to the area in 1915, it brought new residents and many of the large homes, including the Benson family homestead, were razed to build brick row houses and apartment buildings. Bensonhurst lost its status as a “gated” community and shortened its name to Bensonhurst.

Historic New Utrecht remains as a small part of Bensonhurst.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.